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When you give “authorization” for email snooping without realizing it

Here’s something that will guarantee that you double check whether or not you’ve properly logged out of your email account every time you check it on a computer that doesn’t belong to you: A New Jersey court has ruled that, if you haven’t logged out of your email for whatever reason – you forgot, you didn’t think anyone else would use your computer, you didn’t click that button that you thought you did, whatever – you are, legally, authorizing others to read your private messages.

Yeah, now you’re definitely promising to make sure that you don’t leave yourself logged in accidentally, aren’t you? The court case in which this subject was, seemingly, settled – It’s already gone through one round of appeal, which was rejected – centers around two NJ teachers who were checking email using a school computer… except that they were both checking the same account, and only one of them was supposed to be doing so. When Wayne Rogers sat down to check his email, he apparently nudged the mouse of the computer next to his, only to reveal the open email account of his fellow teacher, Linda Marcus. Common courtesy would suggest that the best thing to do in this scenario would be to not look at Marcus’ email, but Rogers – like most people, let’s be honest – couldn’t resist the temptation, and took a look to see what the subject lines of Marcus’ messages were… only to find a thread titled “Wayne Update,” that was, apparently, about him. How could he not read just that one thread?

The simple answer is, he couldn’t, and the email chain was, in fact, about him – as was a second thread, both of which featured other teachers at the school sharing complaints about him, calling him “fake” and “too dumb to understand” what was wrong with him. Rogers printed out the threads to confront Marcus, and in response, Marcus and the other teachers who had contributed to the thread launched a lawsuit against Rogers for sneaking a peek at messages clearly not intended for his eyes. The problem for Marcus? The courts sided with Rogers.

The judge in the initial trial asked a jury to decide whether or not Rogers had knowingly exceeded authorization to view the offending messages when discovering Marcus’ account open, and they surprisingly said that he had not. “Their answers demonstrate that they found he did not know,” theĀ appellate opinion explains. “All seven of the deliberating jurors found that he ‘knowingly accessed’ the facility providing the service and that he obtained an electronic communication in electronic storage, but six of the seven found that he had not ‘exceeded an authorization to access that facility,’ and seven found that Wayne had ‘tacit authorization’ to do so.”

This, of course, seems somewhat amazing: Surely common sense would say that leaving your account open is not the same as giving someone “tacit authorization” to read your emails…? And yet, as stated above, not only did seven jurors feel okay about this decision, so did one appeals judge, who refused to overturn the original verdict. So, consider yourself on warning from this point on: Your private messages are only private as long as you ensure that no-one could accidentally open your email and read them…